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Why Physical Shapeshifting is Bollocks.
Thanks for the writing suggestions in my inbox! I’ll be getting to them over the next several days, if all goes well, either here or over at Therioshamanism.
I had a couple of requests to write about therianthropy; I have an essay in the works about my own experiences as a therian, though that’s a fairly drawn-out set of ideas. In the meantime, I wrote the skeleton of this essay last night (when I should have been going to sleep!) and so you get this one first.
I’ve been aware of/involved in the therian and otherkin communities to varying degrees since the 1990s. One of the memes that simply will not go away is that of physical shapeshifting. Despite it having been debunked numerous times, and no one being able to definitively prove it exists, there still remain those who insist that “It’s possible! Really! I KNOW it must be so!” This goes up to and including hack writers charging exorbitant amounts of money for books that supposedly share the “secrets of physical shapeshifting”.
Look. I get that some people REALLY want physical shapeshifting to exist. Yes, it’d be really fucking cool to turn into a werebeast from the movies, or even to be able to take one’s therioform/kinform physically (and potentially alleviate dysphoria, among other effects). But wanting it really badly isn’t going to change the laws of physics and other realities of this world.
Stories of shapeshifting don’t equal definitive proof that shapeshifting exists. Humans are consummate storytellers, possessed of amazing imaginations. And many stories start with a normal, everyday event, but grow bigger, stronger, and stranger with each telling. (Fish stories and other tall tales, and the game “Telephone” are just two examples of how the telling of something can change drastically in just a few tellings.) An ancient indigenous story about how an ancestor turned into a fox does not prove that people today can shapeshift into foxes. Neither would a thousand of these stories. They can be beautiful pieces of cultural creativity and carry a great deal of meaning, but they are not evidence of the physical reality of shapeshifting.
So. Let’s look a little more at that physical potential. What’s preventing physical shapeshifting from occurring? (I’m going to tackle this as someone whose academic background is largely in the humanities, but who aspires to have at least a layperson’s general understanding of the sciences beyond my basic training in research methods and statistics. Specialization is for insects, as Heinlein would say.)
First, we start with the understanding that regardless of our identities, we are all in genetically and morphologically human bodies. Further, humans are animals, specifically mammals, and our bodies follow the same general rules as any other mammals. But what about the details? Here’s what gets in the way of physical shifting as a real possibility:
1. Conservation of mass: If a 150 pound human shapeshifts into a 5 pound rabbit, where does the other 145 pounds go? Conversely, if they shapeshift into a 1,000 pound horse, where does the extra mass come from? An animal body is a closed system. This means that, with the exception of food and water, which makes small fluctuations in overall mass, the animal’s body is going to stay more or less the same mass from one moment to the next. There is no change of mass in a living animal that is faster than the growth from infant to adult, and it goes in one direction only. So that means that you cannot shrink or expand your body by more than whatever you can put into or expel from your digestive system, and it’s a temporary change at that.
2. Cells are programmed to know what kind of cell they are. Yes, there are stem cells even in adults, but they’re the minority, and a skin cell that splits will always split into two skin cells, not a skin cell and a red blood cell. If you take a 100 pound human and a 100 pound wolf, and somehow split them up into their respective piles of skin cells, blood cells, hair cells, etc. you aren’t going to have equal piles on the human and wolf sides. And cells don’t suddenly change “allegiances”—it just doesn’t happen. We also don’t produce stem cells in massive quantities at the drop of a hat; this is why scientists have to work hard to do things like isolate and cultivate stem cells, and why it costs so darn much to do that research.
Oh, and DNA. A shapeshift would have to require massive and instantaneous rewriting of DNA. Given the trouble it takes just to splice a new gene into DNA, and how incredibly long the evolution of DNA takes from species to species, I am highly skeptical of the idea that a person is able to reprogram their DNA in any meaningful, measurable way, especially that which would be required to have a physical shift. Same thing goes for gene expression.
3. Even if we could somehow swap around cells, a shapeshift would almost certainly require a great deal of cellular mitosis as cells produce new cells and die off in impossibly great quantities within mere moments. The heat from the energy burned by this process would raise the body temperature well beyond a livable level and you would have one very dead shapeshifter. There is absolutely no proof of any mammal being able to live outside of a very narrow range of body temperatures. We are not hyperthermophilic bacteria.
4. Conservation of energy: supposing a person could somehow completely overturn every system in the body down to the cellular level. Where is the massive amount of energy going to come from in the first place? Cellular mitosis and metabolism burn a pretty significant amount of calories just as a matter of course every day, and we are limited in how many calories our digestive systems can process and absorb, never mind the physical limitations of the volume of the stomach and intestines. So even someone with pretty significant fat reserves would have a limited amount of energy to use, and probably not enough for thirty seconds of intensive cell-swapping, heat-producing, DNA-rewriting, rearrange-the-fuck-out-of-everything shapeshifting.
As to energy work? If sucking energy from trees, the earth, other animals, etc. could reliably replace having to eat food, even for a little while, wouldn’t we have exploited that by now? That would be a serious evolutionary advantage, given how much time, energy, and physical risk all animals put into procuring food. If all you had to do to get your daily calories was to slurp up some energy from a field, then nobody would be bothering to use the majority of their time hunting, gathering, farming, etc., never mind the physical risks of manual labor, being attacked by defensive prey animals, etc. If animals were able to reliably and measurably utilize some other form of energy intake besides digestion of food, we would have known it and made great use of it by now. There is no verifiable proof that energy feeding/energy work is anything more on a physical level than psychosomaticism, and is more likely to be something like the stimulation of an adrenaline rush that makes a person feel like they have more energy. So any explanations that physical shapeshifters just draw extra energy from the Earth/mana field/Goddess/etc. are going to be purely speculation.
5. We are not only made of our own tissues. We are also made of massive quantities of bacteria, some of which will not be found in other species’ bodies. Look at our gut flora, for example. If you put a wolf’s gut flora into a human digestive system, or vice versa, then (as they say) you’re gonna have a bad time. So in addition to changing their own body completely, a shapeshifter would have to change the species and ratios of a significant quantity of bacteria in their systems—digestive, skin, etc. Considering there are approximately ten bacteria for every single cell in the human body, that’s a lot of microorganisms to reorganize.
6. Even if the body could somehow survive the all of that, our bodies are programmed to go into shock in the event of severe physical trauma. Given that even a single compound fracture can cause this in some people, the wholesale reworking of the body would almost certainly throw the body’s circulatory system into shock. Untreated shock gets progessively worse by its very nature, which is why it needs to be immediately treated. So a shapeshifter would have to be able to completely override their body’s defense system.
Do you see the issues here? These are basic, known and undoubtable facts about the human body, the mammalian body, etc. These are not vague speculations. They are the things our modern medical technology is based on. They are observable in routine ways (albeit sometimes with a microscope and other special equipment). You can replicate the results countless times.
If there were significant deviations from these basic facts, we’d know it by now. Again, first of all, the evolutionary advantage of being able to feed on energy instead of food, or swap around cells as needed, and so forth, is one that we would have exploited through natural selection long ago.
Even if there were mutations in our DNA that pushed us closer to any of these, these mutations happen gradually. You don’t suddenly have a pair of adult animals whose offspring have completely different traits. Natural selection happens at a relatively glacial pace; occasionally there’s a bump up here and there, but it’s rarely noticeable from one generation to the next. If we were moving toward the biological ability to give up food or regenerate limbs and had made any significant progress as a species, we would have noticed it by now.
And I don’t even want to hear the conspiracy theories. “Oh, it’s just a government/medical/etc. coverup!” Do you not think that with all the dissected cadavers, medical tests on living beings, emergency room visits, and other recorded occurrences, that statistically speaking there would be enough evidence of mutations that it would be impossible to hide the realities? Furthermore, with as many efforts as there are to genuinely eradicate life-threatening diseases, do you really think the ability to regenerate cells at a rapid rate would be covered up? Pfizer and the rest of the medical industry would be all over that in a heartbeat. There’s plenty of money to be made there—you think they’d pass that up? Never mind that there are lots of people in the medical field, including research, who genuinely want to cure illnesses for the cure’s sake.
I have never seen any evidence that any otherkin, therian, or other person has had a recorded, verifiable medical anomaly above and beyond anything found at some point in the human population in general, and there certainly haven’t been physical anomalies that were universal among all members of a particular kintype. Some random dweeb on the internet claiming they have the magical powers that will grant physical shifting (and you, too, can have it too, if you buy this $50 book!) doesn’t equal evidence. Fuzzy pictures of someone’s hand at an odd angle are not pictures proving physical shapeshifting. And no amount of rampant confirmation bias will replace replicable results using stringent scientific experimentation.
Until someone actually does several studies that prove, beyond a doubt, that certain kintypes share similar genetic makeups that are distinctly not human, it’s all speculation based on no evidence. (Again, wanting it REAAAAALLLLLY badly does not replace evidence.) Even if there were some minor genetic anomaly, it still doesn’t make physical shapeshifting possible. It’s like saying that particle physics (in which a particle is in two places until observed in one) proves that a person can physically bilocate if no one’s around to see them.
Finally, lest someone try to paint this as an essay saying that therians and otherkin don’t exist, it’s not. However, you can take it as a caution to not dismiss very basic, known and observable facts of physics, biology, and other sciences when trying to prove otherkin/therians are a real thing, and not just in our heads. Relying only on speculation drawn from anecdotes, wishful thinking, and confirmation bias is not “proof”. You can say “But X number of people agree with me!” or “Well, no one’s done a study yet and no one can afford it!” None of that changes the basic fact that until studies are done that have replicable results proving there’s something objectively and measurably special about otherkin/therians (or that whole-body physical shapeshifting is possible), you have no proof. Period. It doesn’t mean you can’t still identify a particular way and feel very strongly about it, but it does mean that right now there’s no physical evidence that it’s anything beyond your feelings (and to my mind, there’s really nothing wrong with that—but that’s another essay for another time). Until there is physical evidence, then don’t use anecdotes, confirmation bias, and the like where physical evidence would be if it existed.
Finally, if that wall of text wasn’t enough for you, here’s a little more reading that i wrote a while back: Why Basic Research Methodology is Important to Magical Knowledge.
Okay. I think that’s enough writing for now. I wrote wayyyy more than I thought I was going to!